Looking Westward From the Valley

So - did the transportation corridors to the west have a similar impact?

In a word, no. Or perhaps a better answer would be that the failure to create successful transportation corridors to the west led to the truncation of the western third of Virginia, and the creation of a separate state with a different economic and political orientation from the Shenandoah Valley.

Travel west was less important to the farmers in the Shenandoah Valley, because the demand for their products was substantially less in that direction. The initial European settlers of the valley shipped their crop and livestock north to Philadelphia along the Great Wagon Road, and then later to the east across the Blue Ridge mountains.

There was minimal trade to the west. Local demand from the thin population of the western counties was small, and merchants at the Atlantic ports (able to ship easily to the large populations of Europe, the Caribbean, and South America) offered higher prices than merchants on the Ohio River.

Roads across the Allegheny Front were expensive to build. Prior to the Civil War, the Board of Public Works invested in few "internal improvements" to facilitate travel west of the Shenandoah Valley. The Tidewater planters and merchants in the Fall Line cities were not interested in simulating trade towards the Ohio. From the days of George Washington, their objective had been to draw trade from the Ohio River to the Atlantic Coast. There were relatively few times, such as the 1788 convention to ratify the Constitution and the 1851 Constitutional Convention, when the western settlers were able to force consideration of their demands for improved transportation in the Ohio Rive drainage.

If you were raising corn or cattle or tobacco in Augusta County in 1850, your wagons and livestock could travel on the relatively well-maintained roads to Richmond or Alexandria, or you could carry your products to the canal boats at Lexington. Only a few, such as the manufacturers of cast iron products at the charcoal-fueled furnaces in the Valley, found it economic to haul products over poor roads to the farmers in the western valleys or the river ports on the Ohio. After such a trip, perhaps both the producers and the buyers talked about the failure of the state government to build better roads or the promised canal down the Kanawha River.

Virginia and Pennsylvania provided an interesting contrast. Pennsylvania faced open rebellion by its western settlers in the 1790's, after an eastern-dominated legislature imposed a heavy tax on a product made primarily in the under-represented western counties.

George Washington had to risk his personal reputation yet again to establish a national union, when he agreed to lead the Federal forces that President Adams mobilized to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington was a nationalist more than a Tidewater Virginian. Unlike so many in the Virginia General Assembly and the Congress between 1776 and 1861, Washington had a clear understanding of the compromises and investments required to build a nation. He knew first-hand the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, and how barriers to commerce that threatened the economic potential of all regions could be overcome with transportation improvements.

Over the next 50 years, Pennsylvania integrated its western counties with the eastern ports through transportation improvements. By the time of the Civil War, the political differences between the eastern (Atlantic Ocean) and western (Ohio River) counties of Pennsylvania were insignificant compared to the sectionalism between the equivalent areas in Virginia. Kentucky became a separate state shortly after ratification of the Constitution, and the eastern Virginians refused to compromise sufficiently on political representation and taxation policies, or to finance the internal improvements required to bind the western counties together with those east of North Mountain.

Yankee armies invaded Virginia several times from the western region during the Civil War, but the transportation constraints (and Stonewall Jackson's "foot cavalry") limited the Union successes. These invasions were relatively minor incursions, intended to divert Confederate reinforcements or to interdict supplies. The boundary of West Virginia was drawn in 1863 where transportation patterns changed, rather than including counties like Alleghany or Rockbridge further to the east, in case the Confederacy was able to establish its independence and the new state boundary became a new national border to defend.

After West Virginia became a separate state, northern capitalists like William G. Davis and Henry Elkins built railroads into the interior. These railroads connected to the B&O, however, not to railroads leading into Virginia. As a result, Baltimore and Pittsburgh benefitted from the initial extraction of the timber and coal wealth of the region west of the Shenandoah Valley.

After Collis B. Huntington built the C&O railroad (now combined with the B&O in the CSX Railroad) to carry coal from southern West Virginia to Newport News, Staunton was connected by rail to the Ohio River. However, Clifton Forge became the main rail staging center east of the mountains for servicing the steam locomotives, equivalent to the role played by Roanoke for the Norfolk and western (now Norfolk Southern).

Three counties on the far western edge of the valley - Highland, Bath, and Alleghany - are not blessed with limestone soils. The forests on these hillsides offered fuel for iron furnaces, but little opportunity for early settlers to accumulate wealth from agriculture. Tidewater planters did not acquire the hillsides in large tracts, and the area has never been densely settled.

As documented in VaStat, Highland has dropped slightly to 2,500 people since 1990, and Bath grew slightly but is still under 5,000 people, total. Alleghany lost over 3.5% of its population in the past decade and dropped to 12,700 people.

Arlington is the smallest county in Virginia (and the second smallest in the country). It has over 180,000 residents... so there's a substantial contrast in the density of population between Northern Virginia and the western edge of the valley. The contrast with the "bottom" of the valley is also clear - Augusta and Rockingham each have 60-65,000 residents.

Highland is the "Switzerland" of Virginia, with a strong effort to attract tourists to beds and breakfasts. It is the only county where over 10% of the residents are "farmers." On the hillsides of the region, the most valuable crops are apples and maple sugar, but hayfields are the most common sight.

Bath was named for the hot springs that were developed into recreational spas before the Civil War. In the days before air conditioning and modern science, it was considered healthy to "take the waters" at mountain resorts and avoid the heat of August in Tidewater ports.

Since that was also the yellow fever and cholera season, there was some logic in this pattern. The wealthy would take a wagon to a resort, then travel on a circuit to visit other mountain results. The "networking" of the gentry led to business deals, political alliances, and even marriages as well as the expected recreation. Oh, yes, it continues today with business conferences at places like the Homestead Resort.

Why would Alleghany County's population be 2-3 times larger than Highland and Bath? The region had more mineral resources, especially iron, together with the James River. The Forks of the James, where the Jackson and the Cowpasture rivers join, is just east of Clifton Forge. Alleghany really grew, however, after the C&O railroad was built through it and connected Newport News with Huntington, West Virginia, facilitating coal exports. And the Westvaco pulp mill in Covington is able to convert the forested hillsides to cash for the stockholders, as well as provide steady employment. [The resorts in Bath and Highland are seasonal employers.]

Shenandoah Valley Region
Virginia Places